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Elaine Schwartz, Longtime Principal of an Innovative School, Dies at 92

Elaine Schwartz, who in 1982 co-founded the Center School, a public middle school in Manhattan, as a way to introduce bold classroom innovations, then remained its principal for four decades — long enough to see many of those innovations become common practice in schools nationwide — died on Monday at her home not far from the school, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. She was 92.

Her daughter Andrea Franks said the cause of death was heart failure. Mrs. Schwartz had retired just a year ago.

The Center School, on West 84th Street at Columbus Avenue, began as a unique institution in the New York City public education system. Long before the charter school movement, it rejected a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching, opting instead for individualized instruction, small classes and student-led learning.

It came into being at a critical time for the city. White flight had gutted its school-age population, and the school system was creaking under the weight of outdated ideas about how children grow and learn. New ideas were called for, and the Center School delivered.

Mrs. Schwartz founded the school with Howard Berger and Audrey Feuerstein, but over time she became synonymous with it. She eschewed an office, instead stationing herself at a small desk in the corner of a classroom. She roamed the halls, chatting with students and faculty, her presence becoming the glue binding the small community together.

“She was a very steady hand at the wheel,” Marley Randazzo, who graduated from Center in 2007, said in an interview. “It was very much Mrs. Schwartz’s school.”

As an instructor at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Education in the late 1970s, Mrs. Schwartz had learned firsthand some of the new ideas emerging about middle school pedagogy, including the general recognition that grades five through eight were pivotal but often overlooked by regular public schools.

She designed the Center School as both a remedy to such neglect and a way to test out innovative ideas. Unlike many middle schools, Center begins with fifth grade, not sixth. The curriculum runs on a trimester system, and most classes include students from all four grade levels.

Many of her once-radical ideas are today the norm in education — for instance, students receiving narrative report cards rather than simple number grades, and being included in parent-teacher conferences rather than having to sit outside expectantly.

“Elaine put the student at the table,” Michael Veve, a longtime teacher at the school, said in an interview. “She was very upfront about saying that the student is at the table because the student is the most important person at the table.”

One of her biggest innovations, and one that still marks the school as unique, is its emphasis on theater arts: Every student is required to participate in two schoolwide shows a year. Mrs. Schwartz’s interest was less in the aesthetics of performance than in the capacity for theater to help preteens learn to become comfortable with their bodies.

“The confidence they gain is kind of amazing,” she told the website DNAInfo in 2013. “Kids who have never danced, dance. Kids who have never sung, sing.”

Elaine Judith Goldberg was born on April 5, 1932, in Orange, N.J., to Louis and Rose (Herschkowitz) Goldberg. Her father was a judge, her mother a teacher.

She graduated with a degree in theater from the University of Illinois in 1954 and married Irvin Schwartz the same year. Along with their daughter, he survives her, as does another daughter, Julie Madison; their son, Ben Barnz; and seven grandchildren.

The Schwartzes settled in New York soon after their marriage. Mrs. Schwartz worked as a counselor and a teacher in the 1960s; she also worked for Women Strike for Peace, an antiwar group, advising young men trying to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War.

After a stint with Mitchell-Lama, a state program that built middle-class housing in New York City and elsewhere, she turned to education, eventually joining Fordham University as an instructor at its Graduate School of Education.

When she announced plans to open the Center School, she faced public skepticism over her plans for a small, alternative middle school in the middle of Manhattan. Later, when it succeeded, she faced community ire over its small size — capped at 300 students — and long waiting lists.

“There should be a million Center Schools,” she told The New York Times. “All we’re doing is offering alternatives.”

The school moved from West 70th Street to West 84th Street in 2009, a relocation that Mrs. Schwartz resisted despite the promise of more space — she preferred the tight, chaotic environment on West 70th, she said, because it facilitated chance encounters.

Last June, when she retired at the age of 91, she said she recognized that it was “time to go” — but even then she was loath to leave the school community she had built.

“They were her family,” her daughter, Ms. Franks, said. “Her other family.”

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